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Clear Lake cottage country with a twist

Cottagers face many rules, but water tastes so good

Michael Thiele at his lakefront  cottage in Clear Lake: �We need rules to protect against ourselves.�

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Michael Thiele at his lakefront cottage in Clear Lake: �We need rules to protect against ourselves.�

CLEAR LAKE -- When Clear Lake cottagers turn on their taps, it's not hard water or soft water that comes out, and it's certainly not untreated lake water for washing purposes only.

It's some of the most pure, unspoiled, freshest-tasting water in the country. It even looks more sparkly. In Clear Lake, inside Riding Mountain National Park, when they serve you water out of the tap, they do so proudly and watch your reaction.

Clarice Gilchrist likes a strong  conservation policy in the park.

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photos by BILL REDEKOP/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Clarice Gilchrist likes a strong conservation policy in the park.

In 2010, the federal government picked up 85 per cent of the $11-million cost for an updated sewer-and-water system for the tourist town of Wasagaming and about 250 cottagers. (The exceptions are about 40 cottagers on the north shore.)

Strange but true -- cottagers here have a city-style water-and-sewer system. This spring, the federal government completed the job, allowing another 525 cabins in the lake's former seasonal campground to hook up for $5,000 each.

"Our water quality is the highest in the country," said Dale Wallis, townsite and asset manager with Parks Canada.

Its new sewage-treatment plant isn't bad either. "Apparently, the discharge water is drinkable, although I don't know anyone who's tried," Wallis said.

In provincial parks, and just about everywhere else, cottagers are responsible for their own sewer (septic fields and holding tanks) and water (washing water is drawn from lakes or cisterns). Drinking water, at least in provincial parks, usually has to be brought from home or drawn from a community well.

It's why Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh raised eyebrows earlier this year when he compared cottager lease rates at Clear Lake to defend boosting lease rates in provincial parks. In fact, Mackintosh's office wrongly provided media with data showing waterfront cottages in Clear Lake pay an average of $4,500 in annual lease fees.

The Free Press discovered on a visit here not a single lakefront cottage pays that. The average lease fee is just over $3,000, said both the park administration and the Clear Lake Cottage Owners' Association. Increases are pegged to the cost-of-living index.

Clear Lake cottagers have always enjoyed the luxury of city-style running water and sewage treatment, as part of Parks Canada's commitment to conservation. The new water-and-sewage system was an upgrade.

Parks Canada's commitment to conservation makes for some quirky differences to cottage ownership, however. For example, you can't cut down a tree in Clear Lake without a permit -- fines range from $500 to $5,000 under the National Parks Act, Wallis said.

Trying to get a permit because trees block your lake view will get you laughed out of the office. What if the tree is rotten? "Even dead trees are habitat," said Wallis.

What if the tree is rotten and leaning towards your cottage? "It depends how much it's leaning." Trees that fall on cottages don't usually do much damage other than to the eavestrough, Wallis said. If you do get the green light to remove a tree, you are supposed to plant one or three in its place.

Cottagers say they sometimes hear a chainsaw after 8 p.m. when park staff are off duty. Do people ever snitch on neighbours? Absolutely, said Wallis.

It makes for a situation in which Clear Lake cottagers can own lakefront but don't have a lake view. That's because the shoreline, in its natural state, is mostly forested. Cottagers can't be too protective of their privacy, either -- there's a public walk that runs between the cottages and the lake.

Lakefront cottagers aren't allowed to have boathouses, or even boat ramps, on their shore, but they can have docks. That means lining up at the boat launch with your boat and trailer each time. There's a marina with a limited number of berths, but there's a waiting list, and spots don't usually open until someone dies.

Neither are personal watercraft allowed -- they have been banned since their inception, more on the grounds of noise pollution than water pollution. Boaters are also required to have four-stroke motors to reduce water pollution, but newer two-stroke motors manufactured after a certain date are permitted.

Cottagers cannot overbuild, either. The maximum building size allowed is 1,395 square feet for a main building and 400 square feet for an additional building such as a shed or guest house.

It's about leaving a smaller footprint. "Ecological integrity underlines all the decisions," said Wallis.

(It must be noted Clear Lake has 285 "cottages" and 525 "cabins." The cabins are smaller, on smaller back lots, and in a former seasonal campground. Cabins are restricted to 768 square feet in size.)

Cottagers generally like the stronger environmental protections. "We need rules to protect against ourselves," said Michael Thiele, who purchased his lakefront cottage in 2008. He only wishes he could use his cottage in winter. Cottage season is April 1 to Oct. 31, and then the water and sewer systems are shut off.

Clarice Gilchrist owns a backlot cottage built from pine logs in the 1930s. She likes a strong conservation policy. If the park raised lease rates, the way the province is doing in provincial parks, that could drive people out of cottages that have been in the family for generations.

True, there's nothing under $300,000 for cottages in Clear Lake, and prices are $450,000 with lakefront. But most of the cottages have been in families for generations who never paid anywhere near those prices and couldn't afford to pay them now.

In fact, Riding Mountain tried a few years ago to boost some lease fees for cottagers whose leases expired. The initiative would have raised lakefront leases to $4,000 to $5,000. The cottagers hired lawyers and took the government to an arbitration process.

The 97 cottage owners argued their property appraisals didn't acknowledge they can only use the cottage seven months of the year. Realistically, they said, most people only use their cottages for two or three months a year. Why should they be taxed the same as a property used and serviced year round? The arbitrator sided with the cottagers.

Clear Lake cottagers also don't get to vote on governance, and the influence that goes with that, as do cottagers outside the park, Gilchrist said. "If you're paying the same taxes, you'd want serious representation to the government," said Gilchrist.

She knows from experience as the former head of the Clear Lake Cottage Owners' Association input from advisory committees just gets swept aside.

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